Personal Politics and Vision in Dogora: An Interview with Patrice Leconte
by Cynthia Lucia

At first glance, the impressionistic nonfiction film Dogora (shot in 2004) seems a dramatic departure for French filmmaker Patrice Leconte, whose narrative features—such as My Best Friend (2006), Intimate Strangers (2004), Man on the Train (2002), and A Girl on the Bridge (1999)—examine the ebb and flow of attraction defining friendship and desire. Yet Leconte’s journey to Cambodia in Dogora records his own attraction to a country where he once had visited and felt compelled to return with his camera in order to share his deeply emotional response to the landscape and its people.

Leconte claims the influence and admiration of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Powaqqatsi (1988) in shaping Dogora, for which he commissioned an original musical score from French composer Étienne Perruchon, much as Reggio made use of original scores by Philip Glass. Leconte departs from Reggio, however, in filming the orchestra and chorus as they perform the eponymous “Dogora.” Shot in a Sophia studio in blurry black and white and placed at the film’s beginning and end, footage of this performance frames the brilliant color footage shot in Cambodia. Leconte and his longtime editor, Joëlle Hache, create a subtle and lyrical interplay between images and Perruchon’s musical rhythms and motifs. Written in “dogorian,” the composer’s invented pseudo-Slavic language, the libretto is designed to evoke emotion detached from meaning—something Leconte hoped to achieve on the visual track, as well.

Leconte’s approach is simultaneously intimate and majestic—he rejects the touristic representation of national monuments and iconic temples, preferring instead to film the quotidian details of life in urban and rural Cambodia: we see poor women washing expensive cars at a Phnom Penh car wash, a hypnotically lateral view of a schoolgirl walking along the Tonlé Sap bank to her home on the river’s edge, workers in a rural rubber plantation and in an urban textile factory, urban cyclists waiting for fares at taxi stands, shopkeepers closing up at day’s end, and children collecting refuse on an enormous landfill, where they live along the perimeter and attend school in the hope of a better life. Like the sharply observant documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, Dogora refrains from voice-over or other verbal commentary, preferring instead to allow the images and music to speak for themselves. Intentional or not, however—Leconte persistently maintains that the film is meant to capture only his personal and emotional response to the country—the politics of economic disparity emerge all the more powerfully in the absence of mediating language.

Yet, as is true of certain moments in Wiseman’s work, at points in Dogora the absence of information not only impedes viewer comprehension, but it also potentially inhibits active or, at best, activist viewer response. The footage centered on the Steung Mean Chey garbage dump—the largest open landfill in Asia, located a half hour outside Phnom Penh City—is a case in point. We see impoverished adults and children collecting waste (and sometimes consuming something edible they may find) through day and night. We also see images of children studying and sleeping in a schoolroom. It’s difficult to make sense of these images—what they mean or how they are connected. In the French DVD release of the film, Leconte, on the commentary track, explains that the school is run by PSE (Pour un Sourire d’Enfant [For a Child’s Smile]), a French organization devoted to helping the children, many of whom are orphans, obtain an education and the basic necessities of life. At the time of filming, Christian des Pallieres oversaw the school and the charitable work involving landfill residents. While the images evoke a powerful emotional response, one wonders if a bit more information might elicit something more substantial—whether through further research, donations, or other support of landfill workers. At the same time, of course, that could easily tip the film’s balance away from the lyrical to a more didactic, public-service mode—and that, too, would present a problem.

Perhaps it is this fissure—between the personal, lyrical project of the film and those disquieting images that seem to press for something more—that hampered the film’s bid at theatrical distribution in France, other European countries, and the U.S. In Phnom Penh a scheduled open-air screening was canceled at the last minute by authorities who found some images too disturbing in their reflection of life in the country. Although the film was released on DVD in France several years ago and just this year in the U.S., its rich cinematography and textured music track are most powerfully served by theatrical exhibition—whether in capturing the vibrant colors of the city, muted colors of the hazy landscape, or— in the one staged sequence of the film—Cambodian couples gracefully dancing to a waltz in Perruchon’s musical score.

The very limited release of the film has been more than disappointing to Leconte, who in many ways sees Dogora as his greatest cinematic accomplishment—and the film truly is an artistic achievement. But its fate, perhaps, begs the question of whether it is ever truly possible to record images of a country and its people for purely artistic, personal, or emotionally evocative ends. Whether invited or not, the political almost always enters in. Leconte spoke at length about these issues when Cineaste met with him in New York in January 2008, for an Alliance Française screening of Dogora.—Cynthia Lucia

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Cineaste: Dogora is visually stunning. How did you approach the project?

Patrice Leconte: My idea with Dogora was to make it the work of three people: myself, the composer, Étienne Perruchon, and the editor, Joëlle Hache. It was a film we made together—each of us in sequence. First, Étienne wrote the music; then, I captured the images; and finally, Joëlle organized everything. The music existed in its entirety before shooting. It’s almost a musical suite with very specific sections, like chapters. There are about twenty-two compositions in this one piece of music. I knew Cambodia and what I wanted in a general sense beforehand, so I told myself, for instance, “On piece number four there will be images of a car wash,” and so on. But, of course, I also shot things I hadn’t planned in locations I hadn’t planned on using. The parallel between the car wash and the rice field, for example, wasn’t something I anticipated creating. I was initially planning to have shots of women washing the cars in the car wash, and on an entirely different day there happened to be very beautiful light as people were working in the rice fields. Intermingling these elements was Joëlle’s idea. The organization of images is very much of her invention. There were also specific things we were after based on locations I had already seen. There were moments where things just happened naturally and other moments where there was some resistance. We had a crew of four people, making us mobile and open to everything.

With some images, locations, activities, I would ask myself, “How can I avoid making it too documentarylike?” For instance, in the rubber-tree plantation, I was really curious to see the substance being taken from the trees, dripping in the buckets, taken to the factory, and turned into latex, rubber. But I would keep telling myself, “I can’t do this; I’m not here to make a documentary about this tree. I really wanted to shoot there, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to go about it. The only thing I could come up with, in this tremendously big forest, was to play hide-and-seek with the workers and to sort of play on the idea of, “Here I see you, now I don’t.”

Cineaste: Do you perhaps see that as a metaphor for the difficulty of capturing a culture on film that’s not your own?

Leconte: Even though this is a word we tend to use, I wasn’t trying to “capture.” When you capture, you’re enclosing, you’re incarcerating. I was just trying to transmit how I was seeing things—how I saw the people, what moved me so deeply in this country. It was an ambitious undertaking but, in the end, an entirely humanistic film. For instance, in the textile factory, I was interested in seeing the machinery, the bolts of cloth, the whole conveyor-belt quality. I really had to struggle with that documentary impulse.

Cineaste: Why did you choose to make the orchestral production visible at the beginning and the end of the film?

Leconte: The orchestra is an essential character of the film and is playing throughout the entire duration. I didn’t want the music to be anonymous. But, it did pose problems because the studio in Sophia where we were shooting was really ugly, and filming an orchestra that’s performing is something we’ve seen 25,000 times. One morning I woke up and thought, “I’m going to shoot it out of focus and in black and white.” This is designed to help us forget everything we’ve just experienced in the last few hours of our lives, allowing us to enter another place. It prepares the audience in the sense of, “We don’t know what we’re going to see but we’re ready to accept anything.” So it opens the door to unconventional things. It also emphasizes and enhances the music. Even if the orchestra is shot out of focus and in black and white, the conductor is in focus, and has an incredible face—he’s very photogenic.

Cineaste: It’s also a device that says to the audience, “Here we are seeing this black-and-white, unfocused image, but we’re going to take a journey to a place filled with brilliant colors and sharply defined images,” creating a kind of esthetic frame for the film.

Leconte: I don’t want to speak about estheticism because it’s a bit cumbersome, but I am aware of it. The fact that I took so much care with the visual aspect of the film is something people have criticized. For instance, some have criticized the fact that the images of the landfill on which families and children live are really beautiful images with nice light. But, I really don’t believe images have any more weight or power if they’re ugly. I can’t reconcile myself with the concept that you tell happy things with pretty images and stories of sorrow or tragedy with ugly images. There’s a paradox that can appear a bit strange in this movie, which adopts an artistic outlook while showing things that are so upsetting. But I didn’t take advantage of misery to do nice pretty, things for myself—or at least, I hope I didn’t.

Cineaste: This highlights the difficult problem of documentary filmmaking in that there is often a tension between ethical obligations or the social function of documentary, if you will, and the esthetic impulse.

Leconte: I never asked these questions as I was shooting the film. It was once the film was finished that sometimes people would throw these questions at me, and I was at a bit of a loss, because what I was trying to share with others was the effect the country and its people had on me. That’s a bit pretentious, and I’m sorry about that, but I didn’t do a documentary about Cambodia—obviously not. I was trying to adopt an attitude similar to that of a painter, in other words to look at things and try to present them, except images are rarely painted of landfills!

Cineaste: And there’s a complicating factor when you’re dealing with live images. When I was first watching the film, it was without your commentary track (available on the French edition of the DVD). I didn’t realize that the people working on the landfill were actually living there or that the children sleeping in the school were the children of the landfill. The commentary track clarifies all of this. You’re juggling so many different levels of understanding—your own, that of the people you’re filming, and that of the audience. How important is it that the audience know or understand the context available only on the commentary track? [Note: At the time of this posting, Severin Films listed as “TBA” the extras to be made available on their U.S. DVD release of the film.]

Leconte: I really don’t think it is important. The film feels and communicates, but it does not explain. Fortunately, people who see the film respond to it and are not frustrated by the fact that there is no commentary to explain these children. I don’t think I would have enjoyed doing this film if I had felt the need to explain things.

Cineaste: I wasn’t frustrated; I was surprised at how much was illuminated through your commentary.

Leconte: When I do a DVD, the production house always asks me to do a commentary, with an anecdote or two from the shoot and so forth. I really don’t like doing it, though people tell me I do it well. When I did the commentary for Dogora, it was the most difficult for me, and I think I remember explaining this at one point, saying that I couldn’t produce cold, detached commentary to explain how I went about shooting a film like this. To use words to express feelings was difficult. I had forbidden myself to do that during the shoot, and now I had to do it for the commentary. There are only images and music and feeling. When you start using words, you need to specify your indignation, to spell it out—to take a position via vocabulary.

Cineaste: So you feel that can become too reductive?

Leconte: Yes. It’s interesting, because a man wrote to me after watching the DVD saying, “I really liked your film, but it’s such a pity that there’s this commentary cluttering it through it’s entire duration! I think you probably made a mistake.” I responded, “You’re the one who made the mistake.” I advised him to watch it again without the commentary, and he wrote back immediately saying, “Oh yes, you were right! I apologize.”

Cineaste: I’m going to belabor a few issues, for the reason that when one takes a camera to another place and later projects the images recorded on the big screen—even though those images may express a personal response to the situation or place—it still takes on a political charge, even if you don’t intend it to.

Leconte: Obviously, yes. It’s not your will, but that’s inevitable.

Cineaste: You’ve said that you didn’t want Dogora to be a “touristic” film. Does avoidance of tourist sites in favor of observing the rhythms and life of the place ultimately enable you to transcend the touristic?

Leconte: It’s really all about the gaze and the interest you have in the outside world. What I want to suggest is that it’s not necessary to go to Cambodia to open your eyes, to have an open mind. You can see people around you on your own sidewalk—and I believe I could have done a film like Dogora in Paris, so I don’t think of the project as exotic. There’s a really beautiful song performed by Yves Montand called, “Is this How Humans Live?” This is what motivates so much of what I do, what I experience, what I observe. It’s to take interest in people other than myself and to realize that—I’m sort of knocking down an open door—if we don’t open our eyes, we don’t see anything. It’s being aware of the fact that we all live on the same planet, and there are a few of us who are privileged enough to be able to drink white wine at the Sofitel in New York, yet not far away from here and far away from here, as well, there are people who don’t have the luck, the opportunities that we have. And so, this is how humans live.

Cineaste: Yes.

Leconte: You’re forced to agree with me.

Cineaste: I’m willing to disagree, but I do completely agree with what you’ve just said. The presentation of images nevertheless becomes tricky in this respect. On the commentary track, you reference the gaze and the importance you felt in the exchange of the gazes between you/your camera and the people you were filming.

Leconte: Yes, it wasn’t filmed with a hidden camera or simulated. I didn’t want to “steal” images. It was important for me that the people we were filming knew that they were being filmed, and that if someone had asked us to stop filming, we would have stopped right away. It so happened that during the six weeks of the shoot no one came to us and said, “Please don’t film,” either because they felt that our gaze was a positive one or they felt a sort of fatalistic resignation and just didn’t care. What was rather funny was that when we would set up somewhere, everyone could see us and a crowd would gather—mostly made up of children—and then we would do nothing, just smoke cigarettes. After a while, they would say, “Oh, they’re not doing a movie,” and then life would go on. And that’s when we would start shooting. To be perfectly honest, though, there are indeed people we filmed who didn’t notice. We weren’t hiding ourselves, but sometimes we would film someone sleeping or someone in the distance caught up in his or her thoughts.

Cineaste: On the commentary track, you speak of the discomfort you felt when filming the nocturnal images in which you did use a hidden camera.

Leconte: Yes, indeed. I had two principles—we do have to have some principles in life—that there would be no images shot with a hidden camera because I’m a filmmaker, not a spy, and no image would be staged. If there was really nice light, for instance, I would forbid myself from telling a little girl to ride her bike in that light. I did stick to these principles very solidly, but only ninety percent of the time. The idea of filming people at the end of the day in their stores with the whole weight and weariness of work ending—the sort of sad solitude—was something I tried filming with the camera in view, but people would notice and snap out of their solitude. So those moments had to be stolen. I’m not saying this to absolve myself, because I’ve done what I’ve done, but I have to say that once we had set ourselves up in the truck with a tarpaulin over it and a tiny opening to film, I was really ill at ease; I was ready to do just a few shots and then go back to the hotel.

Cineaste: Let’s talk about the images you did stage, like the waltz. I’m interested in the fact that you wanted the Cambodians to learn and perform a waltz.

Leconte: There happens to be a waltz in the musical score and this was a planned sequence. I wanted to create a parallel between the cycle riders waiting for customers at dusk and these little gardens of light with beautiful couples waltzing with total insouciance. And it’s the music that led me to imagine this. We did some research before filming and found a dance school and asked the instructor to teach four or five couples how to waltz. I arrived in Phnom Penh a few days before we started filming, so I went to the dance class. As I saw the couples waltzing to Étienne Perruchon’s music, I had tears in my eyes because I had arrived from so far away to see this sight. We decided on the location and set up the lighted gardens. In the film it’s a brief scene, but it did involve a bit of organization.

Cineaste: To what extent did you direct Étienne in writing the Dogora score? Did you tell him what you wanted in advance?

Leconte: No, he had composed the first version, a twenty-five-minute-long musical suite, for a thirtieth anniversary event, and it had been performed just once. When I met him, he gave me some samples of his work, including this first, short version of the piece. He said that he hoped the music would inspire a film in me. When I had the Dogora/Cambodia project in line, I told him his new version of the piece should be 110 minutes long. He was now able to develop a number of themes he originally had in mind but wasn’t able to use. He didn’t know Asia at all, and I wasn’t asking him to do Asian music—that would have been completely ridiculous. I told him to compose whatever came to his mind and that I’d figure the rest out later. What I’ll remember for the rest of my life is that he trusted me, but he couldn’t envision what I was going to do. When Joëlle and I were done editing both the images and music, without all of the other sounds or the mixing, he came into the editing room. It was just the three of us—the three “authors” of the film—and after he saw it on the large screen TV, he cried for twenty minutes—he couldn’t speak. Joëlle and I were really touched. When he composed this music, he had images in mind, but he couldn’t imagine a filmmaker would be so connected to what he wanted to express with his music.

Cineaste: Beyond the Alliance Française screening in New York, I don’t believe Dogora has had theatrical distribution in the U.S.

Leconte: As you understand, this film is particularly important to me, and deep inside I feel a sadness, because I think it has a universal quality because there is no spoken text and could be screened anywhere. I really don’t know what happened—the film went nowhere particularly. It’s track record in theaters was really lame. It has had a better track record on DVD, thanks to Étienne Perruchon’s music. It’s always a bit sad to have made a film that you believe in so much that remains so personal, so private. The problem may be that people are not in the mood to see the film because they think it’s going to be boring, didactic, political, yet I take heart when those who have seen it, mainly at festivals, say how moved they have been by the film. A very close friend who is a set designer who’s been working with me almost forever and knows me very well, and who, by definition, did not work on Dogora, left the movie house saying, “This is the movie that resembles you the most.” So I’m very proud I made this movie.

Cineaste: Was Dogora shown in Cambodia?

Leconte: We weren’t allowed to show it. When we shot, we had all the permits giving us permission to shoot anywhere in the country—freely and with no restrictions. My idea, of course, was to return to Cambodia to show the movie. But before getting permission to show it, I had to screen the film for the Cambodian authorities. The film naturally shows things, the existence of which they’re aware, but which really shocked them when they saw the images. They decided that the Cambodian population could not see this film, because it was too dangerous to show them a mirror of their existence. People would realize how terrible their living conditions were. We did go to Cambodia with Étienne Perruchon for a concert, and we went to several other Asian countries, to Thailand and Taiwan, where we did a concert along with the movie. It was magnificent how things happened everywhere except in Phnom Penh, where, at the last minute, we found out we weren’t allowed to screen the film. We had organized a big open-air screening that we had to cancel. It was horrible. We ended up with a hundred or so people at the Alliance Française in Phnom Penh where we screened the film, but only for French expatriates.

Cineaste: How specific were the authorities in their criticism of the film?

Leconte: They sent us a letter that clearly stated why they didn’t want the film to be screened. For them, to do a film in Cambodia means showing the Angkor Wat temples and other pretty, prestigious sites. They admitted that the film is very accomplished but said it conveys an image of Cambodia that’s better for Cambodians not to see, because if the Cambodian audience did see this movie and imagined that this is how they are perceived, their morale, which is already low, would fall even lower. So we didn’t do the screening.

Cineaste: How did you feel about what the authorities had to say?

Leconte: I accepted it; I had no choice. I entirely understood why they were telling me this, but I was disappointed. I thought it was a shame, but I completely understood their position. There’s a shot at one point about half way through the film of a little boy, who’s about four or five years old, and who is entirely naked as he’s walking in the dust. For them, that’s an unbearable image. The notion that some children don’t have a pair of pants or a little shirt—you can’t show that to the people. When you think about it, to realize that in Phnom Penh or in the countryside five-year-old children walk around naked is, in fact, rather shocking. I did understand and respect their position.

Cineaste: It seems the government feels they have failed the people.

Leconte: Probably. I don’t want to get into these debates because I’m not a specialist but before the shoot, I had an appointment in the Presidential Palace with Norodom Sihanouk (who was alive at the time). He was a really charming, very nice old man—all fresh and pink. But he was living in the palace entirely protected, and I told myself that this man had no awareness of what his people were experiencing. When he would travel to the airport, a convoy would clear the road, sort of as keepers of the “bubble.” Along the way, people on the side of the road would wave and he would wave back, but then he’d go straight to the airport and take a plane to Paris or London or wherever else. So, in the end, what did he know about his country? Nothing. I can’t understand how you can govern a country and be disconnected to such an extent from real life. That’s not so much a cinematographic debate.

Cineaste: But it is—because you made the film and the film now has now taken on life in a political context.

Leconte: If I’m shy when I answer your questions, it’s because I never wanted to do this film with a preconceived agenda. I just wanted to do a movie through my own sensibility; I wanted to do a painter’s film—a modest film that entirely reflects my feelings, not a deep film or political film, but it becomes one. I thought about Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, with the wonderful Philip Glass music. When I thought about Dogora, I was thinking again about his movies that I absolutely adore and told myself that one has the right to do such a film. Reggio’s films are more deliberately political or take a stance vis-à-vis the environment or human condition—it’s more obvious and in your face. In the end, my film is chasing after the same themes but in a more discreet fashion.

Cineaste: How did audiences in Thailand and other Asian countries respond to the film?

Leconte: Wherever I screened the film, people were moved, they marveled.

Cineaste: Especially moving to me is the tracking shot along the river as the young girl is walking.

Leconte: Yes that moment was really incredible. I had planned to take the camera on a boat along the riverbank, and we spent the whole morning going back and forth filming a few things but it wasn’t satisfactory. And then there was this girl who was leaving school with her navy blue skirt, walking at the same speed as the boat, yet she never saw us. She would disappear behind a house, then reappear, and the shot just continued on and on until she had water up and over her thighs and the shot ended. I turned off the camera. The three other crew members and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes and told ourselves, “This is it!”

Cineaste: On the commentary track, you invented a little narrative for the girl: “She’s visiting a friend, then she’s going home.” The film invites that kind of contemplation, allowing the audience to invent similar narratives—a different kind of cinematic experience from what we’re accustomed to.

Leconte: Yes, the film triggers this kind of thing, it’s not an exact science—it’s something very fragile. It’s not something that’s planned for, scripted, calibrated. I really think it would not have had the same power, the emotion, if it had been. Reality can enter the camera’s brain; reality is overwhelming. You’re right about the people in the film about whom we can invent a narrative.

Cineaste: Renoir is probably a filmmaker whose work comes closest to this—I’m thinking about the long transitional shot in A Day in the Country as the camera floats along the river and it begins to rain. It invites a kind of inspired, distracted viewing in the best sense of the word.

Leconte: Because Renoir was the son of a great painter and he had a really open-minded, contemplative, and well-meaning side.

Cineaste: Has Dogora, as your first nonfiction film, opened new avenues for you as a filmmaker?

Leconte: No. This film expresses things that have been within me for a long time, but it’s not this luminous discovery that’s going to change my life. I’m happy I accomplished a film like Dogora, but it hasn’t revealed a man in me other than the one I was, nor vis-à-vis of my work. When I stop making fiction films, not too long from now, the desire to express myself in a freer way through images without the constraints of fiction is tempting. Since Dogora, I made a six-minute film produced by Beijing as part of a project in which five international filmmakers were asked to create six-minute films about the city. I went to Beijing with Étienne Perruchon. I had never been to China before—but we opened our eyes, we opened his ears—and we did a little six-minute-long Dogora. It was very structured, and we could show only positive things, but I accepted these limitations because I really enjoyed making it.

Cineaste: I do see the potential for at least three new films within Dogora: I can see a film about the landfill, a film about Christian and his organization that helps the families of the landfill, and a film about the rubber plantation.

Leconte: I don’t have a desire to make those films. Dogora remains out of the mainstream and unique. In the same way, I will never do another black-and-white film other than A Girl on the Bridge. I wanted that film to be my only black-and-white film—I don’t want to vulgarize the process. I made Dogora and it means a lot to me, but if a producer comes to me and says, “Oh, we really liked Dogora and we’d like you to do the same thing in Mexico” or wherever else, I think I would say, “No, thank you.” I try to make films that are very different from each other so that I don’t put myself to sleep—and if I don’t put myself to sleep, there’s a good chance that the audience won’t fall asleep either. It’s often said that the great filmmakers continue on the same path throughout their careers, but not me. Freedom is better than all of the Oscars and Césars in the world.

Dogora is distributed by Severin Films, http://www.severin-films.com.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine, Inc.